Everything’s bigger in Alaska, or so it seems. The state’s gigantic — nearly one-fifth the size of the other 49 states combined — and it’s home to Mount McKinley (aka Denali), the highest point in North America. Practically the only thing that’s not big in Alaska is its population: It’s the third least-populated state, with a mere 626,932 residents. More than half of them live in the Anchorage area.
Alaska became a territory in 1912 and didn’t join the Union until 1959, but its heritage stretches back thousands of years when Asians from Siberia crossed the Bering Strait on the Beringia “land bridge.” Their descendants include today’s Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, Aleut and Inuit (Eskimo) peoples, who make up a seventh of Alaska’s population. The remainder claims a variety of heritages, particularly German, Irish, English, Norwegian, Russian and Asian.
Russian fur traders had established a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island in 1784 and reached Sitka in 1799. Their nation governed the vast land until 1867, when the United States purchased it. In 1896, fortune seekers in Canada’s Klondike Gold Rush traveled through Alaska; later strikes in Nome (1898) and Fairbanks (1902) spurred the state’s own gold rush. Opportunity continued to inspire northward migration: During the Great Depression, the US government relocated 203 Midwestern farming families to Palmer.
Alaska lacked a strong armed presence until World War II, when personnel sent to guard the Pacific coastline increased the military population from 1,000 to 35,000. That number eventually topped 100,000, and the economy flourished. Many of those soldiers stayed after the war. The 1968 discovery of the continent’s largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay sparked a “black gold rush” that further buoyed the economy.
This young state with a deep history offers many gems for genealogists. The sooner you get started, the faster you’ll be able to reap big research rewards.
Prospectors’ nomadic behavior presents a genealogical challenge. They poured into mining towns, but quickly moved on when the search for gold stopped panning out. “The early population shifts in Alaska were driven by the stampeders following rumors of gold strikes,” says Ralph Howes, a 25-year Alaska genealogy veteran and Anchorage Family History Center librarian. He recommends using history in your search: Say you trace your gold rush ancestor to Nome, where the trail goes cold. Instead of conceding you’ve “lost” your ancestor, find out what other gold strikes occurred around the same time. Then you can track him using court records, newspaper accounts of strikes and topographical maps.
Finding out who kept records in your ancestors’ locale could take some digging. Alaska started out with a tribal culture that left no written records. When the Russian government took over, churches recorded information. During the state’s territorial years, the US government kept track of denizens. Those responsibilities eventually shifted to the state, boroughs (Alaska’s version of counties), cities and native corporations. The 70 percent of the state not covered by boroughs is divided into census areas — geographical entities used mostly for keeping statistics. (See <www.akgenweb.org> for details.)
That means you won’t find court records, vital records and so on at a county clerk’s office, as you would in the lower 48. Instead, you’ll have to learn the district-, city- or state-level office that had jurisdiction over your ancestor’s hometown when he lived there. Get contact information for cities and boroughs at <www.gov.state.ak.us/ltgov/elections/munis.htm>; most court records are in the Alaska State Archives <www.archives.state.ak.us>.
The Last Frontier’s first existing federal census is the 1900 count (those from 1880 and 1890 were lost). You’ll find that and later censuses on microfilm at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> and branch Family History Centers, and at National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) research facilities <archives.gov>. Online census records are available at Ancestry.com ($179.40 per year) and HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com> (free through subscribing libraries). Look up transcriptions of Skagway’s records from 1910 and 1920 at <www.alaskagenealogy.com/census.htm>.
In 1870 and 1880, Alaska gathered data in territorial censuses of Sitka, available on FHL microfilm. You may find pre-statehood ancestors in Ronald Vern Jackson’s Alaskan Census Records, 1870-1907 (Accelerated Indexing Systems), which is out of print but available in an Ancestry.com database. Data is hit-or-miss: This book indexes miscellaneous records for parts of the Aleutian Islands.
Search the FHL online catalog and the Web for city and borough censuses, such as the FHL’s 1881 head count for Sitka. You’ll find transcribed data for parts of Alaska at <freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~coleen/south_central_alaska.html>. Keep the state’s terrain in mind: If your ancestor trekked to the remote bush, census takers probably couldn’t reach him.
Alaska has a higher percentage of American Indian residents than any other state.
Statewide birth, death and marriage registration began in 1913. Birth records are restricted for 100 years; marriage and death records, for 50 years. Request copies from the Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS) <vitalrecords.alaska.gov/dph/bvs>.
You can find vital information even before the state stepped in. Churches are an important source of pre-1900 records. The Library of Congress <loc.gov> translated and indexed Russian Orthodox parish records in The Alaskan Russian Church Archives. Microfilmed copies covering 1816 to 1936 are at the FHL, the Rasmuson Library in Fairbanks <www.uaf.edu/library>, NARA’s Pacific Alaska Region in Anchorage <archives.gov/pacific-alaska/anchorage> and BVS.
BVS created delayed birth certificates from church records, including data for Moravians, Episcopalians, Methodists and other more recent denominations. Get instructions and forms for requesting BVS records on its Web site. BVS has records for Catholics and Presbyterians, too, but those churches kept their own records, so you might get around restrictions by contacting your forebears’ parish.
These records also can pay big in your ancestor search:
• Newspapers: Since Alaska’s earliest newspapers date to the 1860s, you may be able to find an obituary in lieu of an official death record. Search an online index to several Juneau and Fairbanks publications from as far back as 1901 at <www.eed.state.ak.us/lam/newspapers.cfm>. You can request the state library’s microfilmed historical newspapers through interlibrary loan.
The FHL has a microfiche index to Anchorage obituaries from 1915 to 1980, and you’ll find a few Alaska obituaries in Ancestry.com’s newspaper collection. The Anchorage Genealogical Society publishes birth and death information from early newspapers in its quarterly newsletters, available online at <anchoragegenealogy.org/quarterlyARC.htm>.
• Land records: The US began selling property to Alaskans at its Sitka-based general land office in 1885. Land-entry case files are at NARA, but not everyone who filed a claim (thus generating a case file) got land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has land patents for those who did; search an index and some images at <www.glorecords.blm.gov>. Visit Alaska’s BLM field offices <www.ak.blm.gov> to see tract books and township plats showing your ancestor’s property. Descendants of gold rushers can find maps of mining claims at the state archives; more maps, plats and charts are at the FHL and the Rasmuson Library.
• Military records: Alaskans’ WWI draft registration records are on Ancestry.com, and on microfilm at NARA and the FHL. RootsWeb has a free partial index to them at <rootsweb.com/~rwguide/WWIdraft.html>. Also check Army enlistment registers for 1798 to 1914 on FHL microfilm. Use the Nationwide Gravesite Locator <gravelocator.cem.va.gov> to search for data on 500 military personnel and their families buried in the national cemetery at Sitka.
Holdings at Alaska’s repositories are as vast as the state itself. Besides maps, the Rasmuson Library has photos, manuscripts and an index to 8,000 members of the Pioneers of Alaska. Most materials date from the 1880s and later, but some cover earlier times. The state archives holds records of pioneer (nursing) home residents, WWI veterans and teachers. At NARA’s Pacific Alaska Region, you’ll find American Indian censuses, naturalizations and federal court records. More Indian documents are at the Consortium Library <lib.uaa.alaska.edu>; its microfilmed Alaska Mission Collection (also on FHL microfilm) features missionaries’ diaries, censuses and church records covering 1886 to 1955. With all these resources, your Last Frontier research is headed for big success.
From the August 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.